There are many reasons for optimism about our children’s education and future; but there are hidden truths…

Much has been said about how many children have lost teaching and socialising time as a result of lockdown, which is true and, sadly, may be even worse than we thought. It is reassuring to see that the economic impact of the pandemic is turning out not to be as bad as it was previously assumed it was going to be. However, when it comes to children, there is a very wide variation in the degree in which children from different parts of the country and socioeconomic backgrounds have lost out. I must stress that my observation tells me that the disparity is not just about the rich and poor – with children from poorer families losing out the most. It is true that lockdown and lost teaching time affect children from poorer families more, but that is a generalisation.

I will leave the issue of the pandemic and its effects on young people for now, and discuss something else, which is about the more optimistic side of things in education at present.

Before I highlight those positives, let me share a short story about the conversation that I had with a father a few days ago. We were speaking about our children’s education and this father told me that he had decided to take his younger son out of a private school and to send him to a very successful state sixth form college in Brighton. The son is very bright, and he is one of those who will probably thrive academically, irrespective of at which school or college he does his A-level. Let me just clarify that – he will thrive at any school where he is able to learn and with little disruption to his education by peers who are less interested in learning and where there is stability and consistency of good teaching. Many good state schools and colleges have these, but I won’t say most do. Experience shows me that teachers in good schools tend to be procured (poached to be blunt) by private schools.

As this father was trying to say why he took his child from a private school, education matters in the news and certain events that I experienced over two decades ago came to my memory, and I began to try and put things together in my mind – like a jigsaw puzzle.

Before I tell another couple of stories about what came to my mind, let us look at some of the very positive education news of the present.

Broadly speaking, the negative aspect is what is highlighted in the media the most, but there are some good things that are happening as well. Here are some of them.

• A record number of young people achieved top exam grades at GCSE and A-level;
• More young people gained admission to top universities to study courses like Medicine and other high-in-demand degree courses;
• There has been a very significant increase in the number of state school children being admitted to Oxford and Cambridge; and
• A non-Oxbridge university – which is not even a Russell Group – St Andrews, topped the Times University ranking table.

Surely not many people will want to argue that any of the key developments above are anything bad for society. I agree that these are steps in the right direction. At the same time, if we dig deeper and try to make a forensic analysis of each one of those events, we will discover that it is not a straight line in the direction of inclusiveness or complete equality or whatever you want to call it.

I think the notion of top universities being more diverse in terms of the backgrounds of the young people they educate is a step in the right direction. Provided they do not allow standards to fall, it’s all good. At the same time, I oppose positive discrimination in the majority of cases where it can be used. I’ll explain with a couple of short stories about my experiences in the eighties and nineties.

Story 1 – Mrs & Mrs Patel – the newsagents from Stokey!

I lived in Stoke Newton (Hackney) in the late eighties and early nineties and there was Mr and Mrs Patel, who ran the local newsagents. He and his wife and two children lived in the two-bedroom flat at the top of the shop. The shop was open 14 hours a day for seven days a week and they owned a car people called an old-banger – an old Ford Cortina. They were not at all rich by any stretch of the imagination. They dreamt of sending their daughter to Oxford and enrolled her in a private school, with the hope of increasing her chances of gaining admission. I know the daughter quite well and she was very bright. Although she achieved A grades (no A* existed at the time), she did not gain admission to Oxford.

Story 2 – Mrs & Mrs Braithwaite – residents of Bucks

Wind the clock forward about seven years later, in the mid-nineties, and I was a Physics teacher at a grammar school in Marlow, Buckinghamshire; an area of affluence and wealth. That school where I taught at the time got up to 12 students to Oxford and Cambridge every year. What I know was that the parents of many children at that school were very well off. Many of them attended private primary schools and, in many cases, it gave them a strong start and they were able to pass the 11+ and gain admission to the grammar school.

I will tell the story of a boy – who I call James Braithwaite for the purpose of this discussion. James was quite bright and diligent and, for that grammar school, he was just above average, but I won’t call him one of the best academically. To cut the story short, he got his A grades and gained admission to Oxford.

I do not know whether or not all the parents in that grammar school in Marlow were deliberately sending their children to the state grammar school because they suspected that social engineering existed. Perhaps they thought their children had better chances of gaining admission to Oxbridge from a state school than if they had attended a private secondary school. Irrespective of the reason why they did it, I think they knew what they were doing, and had I been in their shoes, I’d have done exactly the same.

What I envied at the time was that many of those very pleasant boys and girls that I taught at the grammar school used to go on amazing holidays – like Barbados in the summer and skiing in Switzerland or Canada at Easter. Their parents could afford it, as they did not have to fork out for private school fees. They also got to go to Oxbridge if they were good enough to be admitted…

One of the main reasons behind me telling the two stories above is to show that things are not quite black and white on this issue. It is wrong to assume that all children from private schools have rich parents and all the parents of state school children are from deprived background where parents can’t afford a private school. Yes, money is a huge part of the equation; however, in many cases it is about values and priorities or being in the know!

In my next blogpost, the second of four, I will explore further the effect of lockdown on young people. Whilst it is mostly bad, there is some silver lining in the cloud, and we should do what we can to make the best of the situation – or to help our children to do so.

I look forward to speaking to you in my next blogpost